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Updated 5:10 PM June 17, 2004



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You've got spam—for now

If the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U-M researchers have their way, consumers won’t be bombarded with endless spam in the future.

Assistant professor Marshall Van Alstyne of the School of Information, computer science doctoral students Thede Loder and Rick Wash, and senior technology industry and media executive Mark Benerofe will present their anti-spam proposal, Attention Bond Mechanism (ABM), during a June 10 seminar of the FTC’s Bureau of Economics in Washington, D.C.
Lawmakers, economists and scholars from other universities will attend the presentation, “An Economic Answer to Unsolicited Communication.”

ABM works like this: Everyone would be allowed to set a price at which they accept e-mail from an unknown sender. The higher the price, the less spam the recipient is likely to receive. Recipients could collect from the sender the amount they specify for any spam received, unless the e-mail was from a sender who was pre-approved.

The FTC is charged with fulfilling the provisions of the Jan. 1, “Can Spam” Act, which requires them to look into the feasibility of a “Do Not Spam” list comparable to the “Do Not Call” list aimed at telemarketers. The federal agency is seeking ideas on how to comply with the legislation.

“We’re hoping that congressional staffers, who might be present or who will be informed by FTC staff, will put forward means of making this alternative proposal a reality,” Van Alstyne says.

Some programs and filters are not effective because bulk mailers’ tactics change, the researchers say. In the process, e-mail service providers often filter legitimate mail, and the recipients miss messages they would want to see.

“ABM works because it lets both the recipient and the sender negotiate the terms under which they both want communication at a negligible cost,” Loder says. “They do this without third-party human mediation, sunk costs or taxes.”

Wash says this system would improve the quality of information exchange and reduce the e-mail volume that clogs networks and increases costs for both consumers and businesses.

“In general, everyone’s productivity increases, with the exception of the spammers,” he says.

As with any realistic spam solution, ABM requires additional infrastructure. No part, however, is fundamentally new or unproven.

“Everything that is needed already exists—it just needs to be wired together properly,” Van Alstyne says.

The researchers expect to discuss the proposal implementation with Microsoft Corp. and other major companies. They’ve been invited to make a presentation with Microsoft at the Conference on Email and Anti-Spam July 30-31 in Mountain View, Calif.

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